theFINANCIAL -- Widespread Weakness. Concerns are rising about the performance of the UK economy in Q2. It certainly hasn’t been an auspicious start. The trade deficit widened (again) in the three months to April by £1.9bn, to £9.7bn. Exports to the EU fell by £1.3bn, while imports stayed relatively flat. Overall, our services surplus narrowed and export deficit widened. Sluggish exports have shaken the manufacturing sector. Output fell by 1.4% in April, the largest month on month fall since 2012.
Mainly Red. Construction output saw its sixth consecutive decline in April, falling by 3.4%. That’s the sharpest fall since 2012. Almost all sectors are in the red. Construction firms cited reasons aplenty, including the rising costs for fuel and, of course, the shadow of uncertainty over future rights of EU workers (who make up more than 8% of the construction workers) in a post-Brexit immigration system. Yet amidst this, new orders for private housing rose, always a reason to smile.
Still running. The UK added c.150k workers and unemployment dropped by c.40k during Feb to April, compared to the previous three months. Lest we forget, the unchanged unemployment rate of 4.2% remains the lowest since mid-1970s. As ever, the devil lurks in the detail. Total hours worked declined by 0.3% as more of us worked part-time. More importantly, wage growth excluding bonuses slowed by 0.1%, to 2.8%. A net result of UK data this week is that the market implied probability of August rate hike weakened slightly to c50%. In other words, it’s now an almost perfectly balanced outcome, according to RBS.
That’s more like it. Good news for the retail sector has been in very short supply this year as barely a week has gone by without a major high street name being in trouble. But May’s spending numbers suggest that might be changing. Sales in the last 3 months are now 4.2% higher than last year, 2.1% when you adjust for inflation. So there is growth out there, albeit retailers think the good weather and royal wedding might have provided a temporary boost. The problem is the channels are changing. Over a sixth of spending at clothes shops and department stores now happens online so it is no surprise that on some measures sales at bricks & mortar stores are falling.
Impact. An unstoppable force looks soon to meet an immovable object. The force is oil prices and its inflationary impact on global prices. The object is the deflationary effect of the former fall in sterling washing out, which had been lowering UK inflation. Yet even this was unable to prevent CPI inflation remaining unchanged, for now, at 2.4% annually in May. The next move is uncertain. So called ‘core inflation’ that strips out energy, remained stable at 2.1%, suggesting a certain weakness in consumer spending. Yet it’s unlikely the UK remain isolated from global price pressures for long, according to RBS.
Welcome. For a nation obsessed with housing, the property market is giving us very little by way of excitement. Recent trends continue, with annual growth in prices moderating, reaching 3.9% in April on official measures, down from 4.2% in March. On average, flats aren’t doing too great, with annual prices up just 1%. The cause is London (lots of flats), where the market remains weakest. Surveyors suggest the London market may be stabilising and prices are flat nationally. But a little quiet in the housing market is a good thing.
Plainspeak. The US economy has been revving up. The data is currently indicating Q2 GDP running close to a very punchy 5% annualised pace. Not surprising then that the Fed hiked rates last week for the second time this year, a move widely anticipated. It also indicated a slightly stronger pace of tightening this year (two more hikes) and three further next year. That wasn’t all. Fed Chairman Powell is consigning the often cumbersome language of central bankers to the dustbin it seems, promising to speak in plain English and hold more press conferences. Stuffy central bankers no more? Let’s see.
Dawn. A big jump in euro area inflation in May, to 1.8% p.a., up from 1.3% in April. Coincidently, the European Central Bank finally took first steps towards unwinding its asset purchase scheme (QE). It will start cutting monthly purchases from €30bn to €15bn in September and end them by December. It will however continue to ‘reinvest’ maturing securities and there’s no change in rates until at least summer 2019. Firm forward guidance. It seems the ECB is slowly facing in the same direction as the Fed and that this is, perhaps, the twilight stage of the decade-long extraordinary monetary stimulus.